Tuesday, March 24, 2009
This time of year always brings back memories of our yearly family sojourns to Florida for a visit with Nanny and Grampa. My parents would pack the six of us into the car along with all of our stuff and off we'd sail. In those days, they had station wagons for families; no cushy mini-vans with tray tables and movies for us, we roughed it like fishermen in their smelly sailing ships.
These station wagons were the ships of the highway, and come to think of it they rode just like a boat in rough seas. We had two thousand or so miles ahead of us. The Captain (our always-cranky Dad, red faced and sweating and unbeknownst to us at the time always half in the bag) and his First Mate (our usually unflappable Mom) were tense and snappish, filled with misgivings at the prospect. Dad, never a particularly jolly fellow cursed at every turn and chain-smoked his super long Kent cigarettes, while arguing with Mom, who was the keeper of the maps and the one who's fault it was whenever we got lost which was an alarmingly frequent occurrence. For her navigation was a complicated task since Rte 95 was not complete in many areas and we often had to venture off the highway onto signless, winding local byways. Dad did all of the driving, never once relinquishing his control over the steering wheel, arriving at our destination with his left arm sunburned to a delicate crisp.
Mary and Paul Joe sat in the back seat poking each other and fighting while miserably peeling their legs off of the vinyl , surely leaving some skin behind. Since the youngest always get the scraps, Nancy and I sat in what we called the backback. It was set up in a picnic table sort of arrangement with two bench-like seats and a table in the middle. Even though we were small, this area was made even smaller by all of the luggage jammed in around us. We did not mind however; the luggage barrier saved us from the poking torturer that was our brother.
Thinking he was doing us a favor, Dad cracked the back window for 'fresh air', not knowing that it created a vacuum effect, sucking in all of the exhaust belching out of our over burdened Country Squire. Prone to car sickness in the best of times, I was rendered almost incapacitated by nausea. The combination of carbon monoxide, Mom's road food, Dad's cigarette smoke (he was a two-pack-a-day guy) and the sickening bouncing over bumpy roads put me into a misery no child should ever have to endure. Poor Nancy seemed unaffected; she slept for hours. Later in life, we realized that she wasn't asleep, she was passed out and certainly near death. It makes me feel vaguely nauseous to this day, just remembering. Post traumatic stress disorder would be my diagnosis.
These adventures took place in the days before someone had the good sense to put air conditioning in cars and the advent of the now ubiquitous bottled water . The further south we traveled the hotter the car became. The only thing we had to drink was warm lemonade that Mom made in a funky old red plaid Coleman thermos. I needed Pepto, not more acid added to the churning volcano in my belly. (Never one to let nausea interfere with eating or drinking, I partook of all there was to offer, which actually was not much, but more on that later). We all sweated profusely and were no doubt severely dehydrated by the end of the day. As was typical with Dad, he never wanted to stop driving, not until we all had to go to the bathroom at the same time and then somehow he always managed to find the filthiest gas station the south had to offer, complete with a snarling guard dog that lunged at us from what seemed like a flimsy chain. The urgency to pee was made more immediate at to the prospect of being mauled by a greasy, foaming- at- the- mouth german shepard. Mom would say use the boy's room, but we just couldn't. It contained that mysterious smelly contraption that had something to do with boys and their privates, and in our delirium we envisioned even more fearsome monsters.
Mom was not big on road food. It messed up the car and took up space. So our snacks between infrequent stops for meals (HoJo's hot dogs and molten lava baked beans. What were they thinking?) consisted of a couple of packages of chocolate sandwich cremes ( of course not real Oreos, which we craved and begged for but never got because they were too expensive) and a huge can of the world's cheapest candy: these things called Sour Balls.(I think they have since been banned by the Geneva Convention) Sour balls were hard little round candies filled with tiny bubbles that, when they popped as you sucked on them, became razor sharp tongue cutting weapons. They were supposedly different flavors to correspond with their garish colors, but they all tasted the same, like nothing. But they were sweet and being kids, we would shove three or four of these devils in our mouths at a time until the can was empty. By the time we got to Florida, our tongues were so swollen and shredded that talking was almost impossible, which I now believe was part of Mom's Master Plan to keep us quiet. We soldiered on however and tried to pass the time by singing the super- annoying 99 bottles of beer on the wall song, but Mom yelled at us to keep our mouths shut so as not to get blood stains on our clothes, while handing out little packets of smelly wipes.
We eventually started passing all of the hundreds of South of the Border signs , which of course we had to read at the top of our lungs, all the while whining and begging Dad to please stop once we got there, our anticipation growing with each "Pedro says..." sign that flew by. Sadly, there was no stopping at the South's premier tourist trap. He'd sail right past as we stared out the windows like starving children looking at an unreachable feast. All of the huge, colorful signs and hundreds of parked cars taunted us until we slumped down in misery and said not a word for hours, overwhelmed with disappointment (plus our tongues had taken a beating from the 'candy' and it was too painful to argue). At this point, Mom's Master Plan was really working
I will spare you most of the gruesome details of the hotels Dad picked, always in the middle of the night when nothing was open, always quite literally the last resort. We would search desperately for a neon 'vacancy' sign on the horizon. Exiting the highway was a dicey proposition however, as these motels were always much further away then we thought and it took a lot of cursing, yelling and u-turns to find them. We would arrive finally, Mom and Dad exhausted and us kids nearly hysterical from hearing the brutal clamor in the front seat. Miraculously, the motel room came with a feature we believed was made to soothe the shattered nerves of traveling children. A mechanical bed with 'magic fingers'. All it would take was a quarter in the slot and we knew we would be transported away from our taudry room to paradise. My parents were of a different opinion. Always cheap and puritanical in the best of times they regarded our fervent requests for quarters with such distaste and disapproval, that we knew there had to be something naughty about the 'magic fingers'. What it was we hadn't a clue. We'd fall asleep utterly disappointed in a room full of cigarette smoke and all of the attendant odors of a sleazy motel room. Suffice to say that the smell of the dimly lit room added a whole new dimension to the slew of odors that served to make me throw up.
We would finally arrive at our destination after 2 grueling days of travel, totally disheveled, sticky and sick....but it was Florida! Green, warm and humid, palm trees, orange groves and everything!
We would pull in to the parking lot of Nanny and Grampa 's apartment building, right across the street from the ocean in Ft Lauderdale, and all six of us with our luggage would pile in to their two (that's right, two) bedroom apartment where we would stay for the next 10 days. The sleeping arrangements were complicated at best. That is to say I have no recollection of what they were.
Back then there was no such thing as sun screen and we were all pasty white in our half- Irish winter skin. The sun in Florida was very very hot. We would spend the whole first day frolicking on the beach, in the water, in the sun, in our bathing suits. That combination resulted our transformation into four cooked-lobster-like creatures, burnt, sore and feverish by night time. Mom slathered us with Noxema, the' cure' for sunburn at the time, which just held the heat in and made us feel worse, as well as serving as glue for all of the sand in our sheets to stick to our skin and chafe our poor charred bodies every time we rolled over. In the morning, after not sleeping, we'd be forced in to our bathing suits with hastily-bought white tee shirts covering our already flaming skin and pushed out the door. We were not allowed inside much because the apartment was so small and we were always covered with sand like sugar donuts. Down to the beach we'd go, to spend the day huddled under a palm tree to avoid the scorching sun. Once in a while one of us would venture out to the water for a cooling splash. Every ten minutes we would hop, bare foot through the desert sands back to the apartment where Mom and Dad sat in air-conditioned splendor, and beg at the door for something to drink. Cans of soda would appear, with orders to go back to the beach, go to the pool, stay outside, you're in Florida for heaven's sake. To the pool or the beach we'd go and once again huddle in the meager shade of a scraggly palm tree. This was our family vacation. Every year. For many, many years.
There were some bright spots amidst the horror. Trips to a water skiing showplace where we'd stand in the sun to watch crazy people water ski over ramps and jumps, while we wondered when they'd get eaten by an alligator, waiting in fear for one of the pretty, tan, blond- headed girls to emerge from the water screaming, waving a bloody stump. There was a visit to the The Parrot Jungle where a man put giant parrots all over us and made lengthy attempts to photograph this spectacle. Naturally the parrots shit on our clothes, and we were petrified by their large sharp beaks and claws. I had one on my head; it dug it's claws in every time I moved. Wow was that fun.
The best part of the trips were Nanny and Grampa's cooking. Oh, did we eat. Spaghetti and meatballs, pork chops simmered in risotto made with homemade chicken broth , Grampa's Sicilian pizza, his melt in your mouth manicotti, every meal a feast of scrumptious Italian food, topped off with REAL cookies from the local Italian bakery. I loved Nanny and Grampa and they always let me help them cook, which got me away from the poking torment of my brother. Nanny always had a pocket full of these jam filled candies and she would slip me a couple which I would savor in the privacy of the bathroom. That part was heaven.
Sooner or later however, this dalliance in paradise had to end. We'd pile in the car, with Mom clutching the maps and the dreaded can of sour balls, Dad with his cartons of cigarettes, and us, filled with dismay at the prospect of the return journey. It was exactly the same unpleasant trip as the one to Florida, just headed in the opposite direction.
It is a wonder that I love to travel like I do, and love a road trip most of all. I pack huge sacks of road food, sandwiches, fruit, cookies, cheeses, jars of olives, chocolates, lots of drinks. I stop at every tacky roadside attraction, pee only in fast food joints where the bathrooms are usually pretty clean, use the air conditioner, stop to sleep in nice, fresh smelling hotels when I'm tired, and wear plenty of sunscreen. I always do the driving and and spend most of my time regaling my poor strapped in companion with stories of my family and our incomparable road trips. I truly enjoy my holidays immensely without privation or sickness and sometimes wonder if those trips to Florida actually happened or if they were just one of my nightmares. But I have the photos to prove reality. See the top of this story. I'm the one with the parrot on my head.